Australian Bishops' 'complaints protocol' used to uphold orthodoxy

Australian Bishops' 'complaints protocol' used to uphold orthodoxy

Richard Egan

Following release of the Statement of Conclusions, the Australian Bishops at their April 1999 conference adopted a Statement of Policy on "The Examination of Theological Orthodoxy". The Statement sets out a detailed protocol for complaints regarding orthodoxy, establishing the form in which such complaints should be made and the procedures by which such complaints must be dealt with by the bishops - in the first place the relevant diocesan bishop and, if necessary, the Bishops' Committee for Doctrine and Morals.

This protocol was successfully used by a complainant, Dr Ted Watt of Perth (WA), in relation to the published views of Fr Peter Black CSsR on the use of condoms as prophylactics in homosexual intercourse.

The episode provides a precedent for the satisfactory handling of other concerns about orthodoxy within the Church.

Extracts from Dr Watt's letter of complaint and the full text of Archbishop Hickey's response finalising the matter are reproduced below.

Fr Peter Black's ready response of obedience to the Archbishop in giving him a "guarantee that he would accept [his] ruling and avoid speaking on the subject altogether" is gratifying and commendable.

However, as the book in which Fr Peter Black's original views appear is still readily available in Australia, and as these views are also shared by other moral theologians in this country, I believed it appropriate to publicise Archbishop Hickey's action in dealing firmly with this matter.

It is also timely to draw the attention of the faithful to the existence and usefulness of the Bishops' 1999 Statement of Policy on "The Examination of Theological Orthodoxy" as the appropriate means to pursue formal complaints about serious violations of orthodoxy.

In his letter of complaint to Archbishop Hickey dated 6 December 2000, Dr Ted Watt set out his formal complaint that "statements made in writing" by Fr Peter Black were "not in conformity with the teaching of the Catholic Church." He asked that Archbishop Hickey "consider this complaint in accordance with the procedures adopted by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference as detailed in section D Complaints Regarding Orthodoxy of the April 1999 Statement of Policy: 'The Examination of Theological Orthodoxy'."

The complaint involved Fr Black's published advice to parents that if they knew their son had "no intention of changing or stopping his sexual activity, despite all their protests", they could "validly use the principles of lesser evil and justified material co-operation." It was, wrote Fr Black, "common sense to advise the young and determined man to at least lessen the risk for himself and others."

Dr Watt pointed out that "in the context it is clear that Fr Black is stating that the principles of lesser evil and justified material co- operation can be validly used to morally justify parents (and teachers in Catholic schools) in advising young people known to be engaged in illicit homosexual or heterosexual activity to use condoms."

This proposition, said Dr Watt, was "not in conformity with the teaching of the Catholic Church" which had been enunciated in a 1988 letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to the US Bishops' Conference. He then quoted at length from this letter to make his point.

Dr Watt next noted that Fr Black held "a teaching position of considerable importance and influence at the University of Notre Dame Australia where he is teaching, among other students, future Catholic school teachers and future priests of this Archdiocese." While there was no evidence that Fr Black had expressed his view in lectures, "it is reasonable to assume that if this matter was raised by a student Fr Black would address it in terms of the view he has enunciated in his published article."

Dr Watt concluded: "In the light of these concerns I trust that you will proceed with this complaint expeditiously in accordance with the provisions of the Examination of Theological Orthodoxy."

Archbishop Hickey's letter

The following letter, dated 12 September 2002, was subsequently received from Archbishop Hickey:

"I wish to inform you that I met with Fr Peter Black on Monday 9th September to discuss the matters raised in your official complaint sent to me on 6th December 2000.

"I had received a letter (3 January 2001) from Bishop David Walker, Secretary of the Bishops' Committee for Doctrine and Morals, informing me that the Committee could not deal with the complaint until efforts had been made in the local Diocese to find a satisfactory pastoral solution.

"All the matters you raised with me were presented to Fr Black and discussed. He claimed that we were dealing with an area where theologians differed, and that he was referring to advice given in individual counselling sessions.

"I informed him that I accepted the position outlined in the Letter of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the [US] National Conference of Catholic Bishops (29 May 1988), and that I had to instruct him not to teach anything to the contrary at the University of Notre Dame Australia, or in any other forum in this Archdiocese, not to offer such advice in individual counselling, nor in Catholic schools nor to people seeking his advice as a Catholic theologian.

"While I believe he was not able to alter his personal position on the matter he gave me a guarantee that he would accept my ruling and avoid speaking on the subject altogether. I accepted his guarantee made in sincerity.

"I believe, in keeping with the 1999 Statement of Policy on Complaints regarding Orthodoxy issued by the ACBC, that a pastoral solution has been found."

The full Australian Bishops' Statement can be found on the web at:

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